Osman Mohamed Osman was born in Thika in central Kenya. A second generation Kenyan, Osman is now a 20-year-old student in Nairobi. Despite being ethnically Somali, he speaks only English and Swahili.
“I identify myself as Kenyan first. It’s not fair to identify yourself by tribe,” said Osman. He feels caught in the middle of a war on terrorism in a country that has been his only home.
Osman’s father has spent three decades in the Kenyan military, an army that since 2011 has been deployed in Somalia as part of an African Union offensive to curb al-Shabab militants.
Kenyans are all too aware of the risks of having boots on the ground in neighbouring Somalia after al-Shabab claimed responsibility for last year’s terror attack on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping centre that ended in the deaths of 67 people. Following the attack, the group said it was in retaliation for Kenya’s military interference in Somalia.
In late March, an attack on a church just outside Mombasa left six dead and dozens injured.
A week later, another six were killed in a grenade attack in the Somali neighbourhood of Eastleigh in the capital. In response, the Kenyan government launched a security operation which it said targeted illegal immigrants and criminals in the country. The crackdown has focused largely on areas with a high concentration of Somali residents, including Eastleigh.
“I understand the government is trying to eliminate terrorism, but the problem is that they are harassing people,” said Osman.
Forced to pay bribes
Many of those arrested, including Kenyans with the necessary documentation, say they have been forced to pay bribes to be released and have their documents returned. The operation has continued to come under harsh criticism from Somalis and Kenyans alike, with voices growing louder as a sports stadium in Nairobi was turned into a detention centre.
“We bring the arrested persons to this place, we screen them, verify those who have documents and those who do not, and take appropriate action,” Kenyan Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku told a media briefing at the stadium.
While Ole Lenku said no detainees spent the night at the stadium, many inside say they have been there for several days, sleeping on the floor. In response to the allegations of abuse, Ole Lenku said there had been “no reports of people extorting money or rapes … what is being done is being done professionally and is within the law”.
However, a report by Human Rights Watch following a visit to Pangani police station in Eastleigh detailed hundreds of detainees packed into cells designed to accommodate 20 people. According to the report, police were also holding detainees beyond the 24-hour limit prescribed under Kenyan law, without taking them to court.
The arrests have not been restricted to Somalis. Outside Kasarani, a suburb to the east of Nairobi, Ethiopian refugee Mehedi Ibrahim has been waiting with blankets and food for his wife and child who were arrested the day before. He said this was the second time in a week that she had been detained. “I have no hope. Tomorrow, I don’t know what will happen because my wife was here, the documents were checked, she was released, again she came back.”
So far, the Kenyan government has deported close to 100 illegal immigrants to Somalia, and it has threatened to relocate documented refugees to one of two camps in Kenya. This is a major concern for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Both camps are filled to capacity, with new arrivals continuing to come from across the border as Somalis seek refuge from ongoing fighting in their country.
Human Rights Watch has called for an end to what it says is the “arbitrary arrest and detention, extortion, and other abuse against Somalis during security operations”, adding that any undocumented Somalis should be given the opportunity to file asylum claims.
This is sentiment echoed by a member of Parliament, Diriye Abdullahi, who fears that such moves will alienate the Somali community.
“We are concerned at what is happening and disappointed because the government did not consult the [Somali] leadership. We feel that there is a better way that this could [have been] handled.”
Abdullahi, who represents Wajir South, a region with a majority of Somalis, said he wanted answers as to why Kenyan Somalis were being arrested.
“The Kenyan government is fond of knee-jerk reactions. In one big swoop one week, the police are more interested in collecting bribes than nabbing real criminals.”
Though the arrests have decreased in recent days, last week’s detention of the Somali consular officer in Kenya, Siyad Mohamud Shire, in violation of his diplomatic immunity, left the Somali community in an uproar. Shire was released after several hours.
Meanwhile, Osman said he continued to feel discriminated against simply because he was Somali.
“I am between a rock and a hard place, because the government is trying to oppress us and the public doesn’t feel comfortable around us.”
Osman believes it is up to the government to unite the people.
When questioned about concern about a possible backlash, Ole Lenku said: “Let them try.”